Meet the youngest NRF Y2-rated Associate Professor of Mathematics Education in South Africa

Trailblazing at 31, Hlamulo Mbhiza, or Dr Mulo, as he is affectionately known, is the youngest – and only – Associate Professor of Mathematics Education in South Africa carrying a coveted Y2 rating from the National Research Foundation (NRF).


Prof Hlamulo Mbhiza

A proud recipient of the 2023 Principal’s Award for Research Excellence, Mbhiza's academic pursuit in the field of mathematics education stems from a profound introspection into his personal journey of learning mathematics, marked by a series of obstacles and enlightening experiences. Hailing from the beautiful village of Jimmy Jones in Malamulele, rural Limpopo, the notion of rural learners’ and teachers’ voices in mathematics education directly informed Prof Mbhiza’s research as a prominent scholar of rurality and mathematics education.

In his formative years, Mbhiza perceived mathematics as the key to breaking free from the cycle of poverty that was prevalent in his family and community. In the context of his upbringing, excelling in mathematics was synonymous with securing a pathway to Johannesburg, often referred to as "The City of Gold", a place where aspirations materialise into achievements.

Despite numerous challenges in comprehending mathematical concepts, Mbhiza felt compelled to embrace the subject as his sole means of transcending the constraints of destitution. This perception of mathematics as a transformative tool was deeply ingrained in the societal fabric of his village, leading him to assume its universality across rural settings.

In a bid to combat the research gap in rural mathematics education – and drawing from personal experiences and observations – Mbhiza's research delves into the intersection of mathematics education and socio-economic dynamics, shedding light on the pivotal role of mathematics in shaping educational aspirations and opportunities in underprivileged communities.

Thus, driven by a quest for inclusivity in research, Mbhiza recognised a prevalent bias in existing mathematics education studies that predominantly focused on urban and township schools. This realisation sparked a deep-rooted passion for investigating rural educational landscapes, particularly among mathematics educators and students.

In 2024, Hlamulo received Unisa’s prestigious Principal’s Award for Research Excellence and was lauded for achieving his NRF Y2 rating. These achievements underscore Mbhiza's dedication to revolutionising educational research in rural areas, propelling him to innovate and to collaborate with rural educators and students to broaden knowledge horizons.

From the narrative justification of the outcome of the Y2 rating, one of the reviewers says: "The overall research demonstrates a commendable standard and aspires to bring about transformative changes in mathematics education within South African rural areas." This feedback acknowledges the commendable standard of Mbhiza’s research and the potential to instigate transformative changes in mathematics education within South African rural areas.

Mbhiza’s unwavering commitment to dealing with the dearth of educational research in rural contexts aligns closely with the goal of bringing about transformative changes in mathematics education within these underserved regions, thereby focusing on United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 4, which is quality education. The recognition of Mbhiza's research endeavours as having the potential to catalyse transformative changes in mathematics education within South African rural areas underscores the significance of his work in advancing educational equity and excellence. Through his pioneering research and his commitment to empowering rural communities through education, Mbhiza promotes positive change and innovation in the realm of mathematics education, aligning closely with the feedback received from the NRF rating.

Mbhiza is becoming a prominent figure in academia, holding the position of Deputy Editor for the journal Africa Education Review. In this role, Mbhiza contributes significantly to the dissemination of valuable research and knowledge within the education sector. Additionally, as the Chairperson of the College of Education Young Academics Research Interest Group (YARIG), Mbhiza plays a key role in fostering a community of young academics dedicated to advancing research in education, providing a platform for collaboration and innovation. Furthermore, as the College of Education Innovation Champion, he works closely with the Directorate of Innovation, Technology Transfer and Commercialisation to promote innovation and excellence in education.

Mbhiza positions himself as a motivational figure within academia, encouraging and inspiring young individuals to venture into the realm of research and thrive. To amplify this message, he is active on all the major social media channels.  

* By Freddy Mlambo, Acting Marketing and Communications Specialist, College of Education

Publish date: 2024/06/25

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